Imagining a fossil free future

Dr Fiona Miller, Senior Lecturer in Social Impact Assessment and Development Studies in our Department, shares her reflections from a recent walkshop in Sweden in our latest blog:


Whilst on sabbatical at Gothenburg University in early 2016 undertaking research on climate-related displacement, I visited Lysekil one weekend with my family, on the recommendation of an old friend who had holidayed there since his childhood. Lysekil is on the west coast of Sweden, halfway between Gothenburg and Oslo, on the northern banks of Gullmar fjord. When we visited at that time, the hotel overlooking the main square had been converted to temporary housing for refugees displaced by the ongoing war in Syria. Sweden had accepted more than 100 000 Syrian refugees, ten times the number of people Australia pledged to accept, and had resettled these people across the country, with each municipality responsible for supporting a share of the total refugee intake. Conversations with locals we met in Lysekil and media reports at the time revealed the depth of the soul searching Sweden was going through (and continues to go through) in response to the refugee crisis. These conversations involved so many issues, including Sweden’s global humanitarian responsibilities, contested sense of national identity, and the challenges of assisting people recover from the trauma of war whilst meeting their need for housing, health, education, employment and a sense of belonging.

View to Lysekil
View towards Lysekil. Source: Fiona Miller.

Contrasting levels of ambitions

With this strong memory of Lysekil in mind, I recently returned to Fiskebäckskil on the southern side of Gullmar fjord for a workshop on imagining a fossil-fuel free future. The workshop was organised by Eva Lövbrand and colleagues at Linköping University as part of the Shadow Places network  – an international network of researchers, artists and activists who seek to make visible the place-based, material and imaginative structures, practices and relations that sustain the exploitative capitalist system, and modern global history of colonisation, that underpin climate change. The workshop was framed around the challenges associated with realising a ‘fossil-free future’, and Sweden’s recent commitment to achieving zero net-carbon emissions by 2045. Again, the level of ambition between Sweden and Australia, apparent in terms of our contrasting humanitarian commitments to refugees, could not be starker. In contrast to Sweden daring to imagine a ‘fossil-free future’, Australia’s commitment to the extraction of fossil fuels remains steadfast (see recent approval of the Adani Carmichael coal mine) whilst our carbon emissions continue to rise and an effective emissions-reduction policy remains elusive. Yet, Sweden’s path to a ‘fossil free future’ is not without obstacle. The location of the workshop lies in the shadow of Scandianavia’s largest oil refinery – Preemraff – situated on the edges of Lysekil. Plans to expand operations at the plant, if approved, may well threaten the realisation of the country’s ambitious goal of a ‘fossil-free future’.

Shadow places as metaphor and methodology

During the workshop we discussed how the concept of shadow places (Plumwood, 2008) might inform an understanding of connections, responsibilities and justice across time and space. Shadow places as a metaphor evokes a sensitivity to what is hidden and what often goes unconsidered. It brings into focus the connections between the operation of particular ideologies and actions and their contribution to the harm experienced by particular people and places, often distant from the physical or discursive source of this harm. As such, the concept encourages us to confront the implications of colonialism, control and consumption by the privileged few as well as the historical political economic structures and institutions that have contributed to inequalities within and between societies, and destruction of the living world. Echoing some of these themes, a presentation at the workshop by artist Claire Healy provided a brief retrospective of the work she creates with partner Sean Cordeiro. The themes of time and combustion emerged as particularly resonant with the concept of shadow places. For instance, one of the earlier works, Tapestries of Disaster, portrays violent images of combustion through the medium of tapestry. Sudden flashes of combustion are captured by this slow, traditional craft of tapestry. Interpreting this work with reference to shadow places, it is apparent the method and output provide a metaphor for the long geological history that has produced fossil fuels, juxtaposed with a brief moment in humanity – the epoch of the Anthroprocene – that is marked by the rapid and violent combustion of fossil fuels.

Local manifestation of global circuitry of pollution

The fjord, on whose banks we met (and in which we had a very chilly swim!), is a valued place for the humans who visit and call it home as well as the diverse aquatic and bird life sustained by the marine currents, freshwaters flows and contrasting depths of water. Whilst Fiskebäckskil and parts of Lysekil are places enjoyed by the privileged few, having long been holiday destinations, they can also be considered ‘shadow places’ due to the threats such places now face from the combined impacts of pollution and climate change. At the mouth of the fjord, we visited one of Europe’s oldest marine research stations. The implication of all places in the global circuitry of pollution is captured in the scope of research undertaken at this station. Researchers here are currently considering:

  • how to protect local marine habitats from invasive species, such as Pacific oysters which are transported from afar by the ballast of ships into this busy harbour;
  • the extent of ocean acidification, due to the ocean’s rapid absorption of CO2 from the atmosphere; and
  • the dispersal of plastic throughout the marine environment, a process complicated by the transport of melting ice from the heavily polluted rivers of Russia.
View from research station
View from the research station. Source: Fiona Miller

Yet, not all pollution comes from so far away and on the edges of this scenic fishing and holiday place lies Scandinavia’s largest oil refinery – the country’s single, largest point source of carbon emissions. Proximity to toxic marine environments is a theme explored by Clif Evers, who employs a ‘wet ethnography’ to understand the embodied nature of such toxicity. Clif presented a film on his ongoing research on polluted leisures, notably his work with retrenched workers from Newcastle’s heavy industries who surf the sludge and slurry discharged into the Tyne River. Their exposure to toxicity, in work and leisure, forms an essential part of these men’s masculine and political identities, prompting us to consider the embodied and cultural dimensions of pollution.

Concentration and expansion

The Preemraff oil refinery near Lysekil reflects not only the most concentrated source of carbon emissions in Sweden but also the concentration of wealth associated with the carbon economy. The ownership of Sweden’s largest petroleum company, Preem, now lies in the hands of a single Saudi individual. The oil refinery was originally set up to exploit oil from the North Sea, yet as this reserve has dwindled Preemraff has expanded its reach to more distant places – Russia, West Africa and the Middle East. The capacity of capitalism to exploit new opportunities, as resources dwindle, was apparent in a talk we received by an environmental manager at the refinery who explained Preemraff’s transition to the increased processing of biofuels, such as waste from the pulp and paper and fisheries industries, to residue oil refinery. This global move, apparent in Preemraff’s business plan, from exploiting the ancient matter of carbon locked up in oil to that of ‘renewable’ biomass, will add further to the competing claims over land and biomass for food, ecology, livelihoods and construction.

Extractivism and activism

The heavy toll of activism against extractive industries emerged from two presentations at the workshop. We heard from a local activist who has campaigned against the refinery and its expansion, and its health impacts and impacts on local landowners, for close to three decades. They revealed some of the challenges as well as the personal toll associated with activism in small communities dependent on extractive industries. This reminded me of the recent community-led court win against the expansion of a coal mine in the Hunter Valley, NSW, and the heavy toll borne by such activists resisting the expansion of coal, oil and gas. The role of extractive industries in contributing to the notion of the Swedish welfare state, as discussed by Anna Kaijser at the workshop, is a strong discourse that makes resistance particularly challenging. The strategic deployment of extractive nationalism by resource industries, as explained by Anna, is used to pacify local opposition, particularly by Sami people who are at the frontline of extractive industries in Swede. This echoes strongly with the experience of Aboriginal people and mining in Australia.


Walkshopping. Source: Fiona Miller

To conclude our time together, we went on a walk-shop along the coast track. Walking and talking with each other, whilst experiencing the rain, wind, smells, sounds, and shifting light and shade, was a wonderful way to exchange ideas and connect with the country around Lysekil/Fiskebäckskil. I found the conversations, presentations, swims in the fjord, visit to the research station, tour of the refinery and walks really enriching. Connections – emotional, political and intellectual – are critical to valuing and honouring shadow places. Considering the contrasting perspectives on climate change impacts and responses, with reference to the idea of shadow places, makes the illumination of possibilities for actions possible. Addressing the social and environmental justice issues associated with the transition towards a fossil fuel free future must build upon, and extend, the insights gained from our engagement with shadow places and the material and imaginative structures, practices and relations that construct them.

Thanks to our friends at Linköping University for organising such an inspiring workshop and for The Seed Box for making this possible.

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